If you’re new to the God in Therapy posts, we’ll reintroduce the theme, briefly. In the God in Therapy posts we discuss (and sometimes even attempt to answer), the following questions:
Do discussions of spiritual/religious beliefs belong in the psychotherapy session? How do different therapists view the subject of God in psychotherapy? What are the “rules” and parameters? Is the traditional monotheistic God of the Bible relevant to the psychotherapy and addiction treatment processes? How does *spirituality/religion relate to our emotional well being? And, since the authors’ spirituality is rooted in the traditional Jewish mystic perspective, what does Jewish wisdom have to say about the connection between spirituality and mental health?
Kabbala and most other Jewish texts and commentaries place what at first glance might seem an extraordinary emphasis on the connection between who we are and:
1. What we do (how our behavior/actions respond/react/interact with the external world)
2. What we think (how our internal thoughts and, secondarily our feelings lead us to respond/react/interact with the world )
3. What we say (how our words affect others and conversely, how the words of others affect us)
Let’s focus on the power of our words, and more specifically, the power of those negative words spoken about others, commonly known as “bad-mouthing.”
Today, the idea that gossip or insults are morally wrong seems almost quaint. Tell-all talk shows, mud-slinging “news” shows or news articles, the politicizing and personalizing of all policy arguments, and so on, have led to a culture of derision rife with cheap shots and personal attacks.
It is nearly the norm: If you don’t agree with someone, don’t debate on the merit of the argument, attack him personally.
Some shrug their shoulders and say, well that’s public life for ya’, and then go home and bad-mouth their sister to their aunt, or their father to their son, and so on. And when it’s family, it’s really personal—and it hurts. The people who are supposed to love us and stand by us are now attacking us and maybe we’re even attacking them. Behind their backs, to their faces, it doesn’t matter.
From a Jewish spiritual perspective, it all comes under the general heading of loshon hara, bad talk, or as we say in American English, bad mouth. A wise scholar known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), wrote extensively about the ancient Jewish law that forbids bad-mouthing others.
And, surprise surprise. The bad-mouthing doesn’t even have to be a lie! Exposing someone’s faults or failings, no matter how true they may be, may still be harmful. Embarrassing them, destroying their reputation, verbally attacking them just to showcase verbal prowess, and so on are believed to be so harmful that the Chofetz Chaim wrote an entire book about it.
In it, he reveals that bad-mouthing others, causes material and psychic harm to (at least) three people: the one who is the subject of the bad-mouthing, other(s) who heard the bad-mouthing, and the one who does the bad-mouthing.
The Subject: Obviously, if the person who is being spoken about if he or she hears the words, it can cause great pain. There are ways to directly speak to people without attacking them, even if they have caused you great harm.
But the Chofetz Chaim argues that there is very real damage done to someone who is the victim of gossip (again, even if that gossip is true). By dragging their name through the mud and shaming them, you might destroy their career or their relationships, maybe even their lives. Aside from that, Judaism teaches that humiliation is actually akin to murder—and might even cause death.
Remember the students who killed themselves last year after having their private lives exposed on the Internet? Yes, their suicides can be framed in a lot ways (bullying, hate-crimes, invasion of privacy), but it all boils down to the humiliation and shame felt by the young victims of bad-mouthing (albeit bad-mouthing in the form of video exposés).
The Listeners/Viewers: The people who hear/see the bad-mouthing are also affected. They now think poorly of a fellow human being, they are led to believe that this kind of talk is “acceptable”, and, at the soul level, they have been tainted with a subtle poison. The words we hear and the sights we see actually change who we are and become; now, pain, shame, humiliation become part of the listeners’ acceptable emotional-intellectual lexicon.
The Speaker: Finally, the Jewish sages teach that the speaker, the one who actually does the bad-mouthing, is tainted. He has done harm to his own soul, harmed another, and gave into an unhealthy desire. We are taught that this affects us emotionally and physically. The words leave a “bad taste in the mouth” and a stain on the soul.
So what do you do when you’ve been harmed and you need to talk about it?
There are some important distinctions between gratuitous bad-mouthing and acceptable discussion of negative information. The exceptions require that you understand your real motives as much as possible—if you’re not able to sort out your motives and feelings, discussing this with a supportive individual such as your therapist can really help.
And don’t beat yourself up. If someone has egregiously harmed you, it might take a while to work out the feelings of pain, hatred and vengeance and move onto to solution-oriented problem-solving.
1. Speaking constructively about an individual with whom you’re having a problem and revealing the gory details is not bad mouthing. Especially if the conversation takes place with a designated and helpful listener and the focus is to work out a solution to the problem or find proactive emotional relief. In a therapy setting, this might have to occur more than once in order to work through the feelings of the victim. It is rare that someone who has been seriously harmed by another can sort out all their feelings immediately.
Of course, if you find yourself speaking to more than one or two trustworthy advisors about the situation, even if genuine harm has been done, you might end up cherry-picking their responses and suggestions, or maybe subconsciously trying to harm your offender or you might simply be spreading gossip.
2. Telling others about someone who has committed a heinous crime in order to protect them or the people they know, is not considered bad-mouthing. For example, if you know for certain that someone has done a criminal act, and you tell a friend who is considering entering into a personal or business relationships with him that you have information that leads you to believe this person is dangerous, you’re also, in most cases, not bad-mouthing.
Bad-mouthing in a way, can be a subtle “addiction”. Sometimes people feel an actual lust to talk about others! But fine-tuning what you say (and listen to) isn’t actually all that hard.
If you hear something about someone that causes you anxiety, feelings of guilt or shame, feelings of vengeance, etc., you might be listening to bad-mouthing.
If you talk about one person with another, talk with awareness. Are you sharing personal, humiliating, embarrassing, or shaming information? Even if you are right and your facts are correct? Do you want the listener to feel dislike, disgust, or disdain for the object of your conversation? You might be engaging in bad-mouthing and not even know it.
The Biblical sages and commentators teach that God loves his creatures: When you bad mouth another person, you cause a breach in the relationships between these creatures and cause pain to the Creator. We’re taught that it’s akin to the pain a mother or father feels when one of their children hurts another.
*Yes, we know there is a difference. However, we argue, that “religion done correctly” is spirituality and the divide is merely a function of the modern dissolution and dilution of many spiritual paths.